Autumn is fast approaching and sightings of even our most common birds are down. Bird song is replaced with the high pitched hum (alternating strong then fading) of male cicadas. The prolonged lack of bird activity is eerie, but it is not unusual for this time of year.
Many of the migrators and year round residents are still around….just less conspicuous. They just finished raising 2 or 3 broods and are thoroughly done with displaying, singing and nest building. Molting feathers and plentiful ground level food supply allow them to remain less active. Plus, they’re resting up, getting fatter and conserving their strength.
Photographing Fledglings in Late Summer
There are a few late nesters (migrators and year round birds) who are still rushing around in an effort to raise their families. Cardinals can have as many as four broods and are often still going strong in late August and September.
This hungry young Northern Cardinal looks like he either fell out or was ejected from the nest a little early. He seemed comfortable when sitting on a branch, but struggled to climb up the tree trunk to get to his parent. (See photo 2.) I did not see him fly….but he was brave enough to jump and then use his feathers to float down to a lower nearby branch. The male parent in his post breeding molt still feeds the demanding fledgling. (See Photo 3.)
I was on my way out the door when I noticed this little fledgling. It’s pretty obvious with the high ISOs and wide open apertures that I did not have time to attach a flash to the camera when I shot these images. Despite the shallow depth of field and somewhat grainy overlay, the filtered light was even and complimentary- enough to bring out some of the detail and texture of the emerging feathers on the fledgling and the molting feathers on the parent.
When I’m out photographing birds, I have plenty of down time to watch and think about the complex relationships and interactions between birds and other species. Recently, I was very interested to read about how Northern Cardinals indirectly help reduce the spread of West Nile disease.
Northern Cardinals (along with most other birds) play an essential role in the transmission of disease to humans. When a female mosquito successfully pierces a bird’s skin to probe for blood vessels, suck blood and then leave behind saliva, that bird will become a host to any viral infections carried by the biting mosquito. The infected bird will then spread the infections to the next mosquito who pierces her. Eventually down the line, an infection carrying mosquito will transfer the virus to a human.
How Northern Cardinals Fit In
Some species of birds don’t offer the same quality disease spreading services for blood sucking insects.
Epidemiologists at the CDC claim that when virus carrying mosquitos feast on the blood of Northern Cardinals and infect them with West Nile Virus, the virus does not circulate in that species bloodstream at the level required to transmit the disease to the next mosquito host. Scientists surmise that this disease can be slowed or even halted by an unaccommodating bird host like the Northern Cardinal. Fewer infected mosquitoes means fewer transmissions to humans. (NOTE: Other species of birds that may also suppress this disease are Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers.)
So the proliferation of West Nile disease (in the U.S. since 1999) depends on which birds are infected. To make this phenomenon even more fascinating, epidemiologists are finding that the appetites of mosquitoes change mid summer so they are more likely to choose to take their blood meals from poor hosting species like Cardinals, thereby slowing down exposure to humans.
Photographing Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals are one of the most common year-round residents in our yard. They are cautiously bold and curious, perching on or around the bird feeders near the windows to forage. No other bird in our yard is as easy to approach with a camera. When I make plans to photograph Cardinals, there is little need for me to venture outside with my camera and become a blood meal for mosquitos and ticks.
It’s the coloration of the female cardinal that I find most eloquent. Subtle olive brown feathers are tinged with red on the crest, eyebrows, wings and tail. Her bold red/orange cone shaped beak matches the male cardinal’s beak, but appears less protuberent against the more understated colors of her face.
When I took the photo above, the sky was almost completely covered with sun obscuring clouds, making for a bright but diffused light. Diffused light softens the contrasts across the whole image, making for a more even and balanced look. This type of light creates less of a distinction between the shadows, highlights and mid-tones.
Showy Bird Crests
When focusing in on a female Northern Cardinal, I normally try to include a capture with her crest held high. If she notices the camera, her crest generally goes down, perhaps an effort not to be detected. When a bird sports a crest, she can raise and lower it to indicate mating readiness, nervousness, excitement, caution, and fear. These upright barbs high on the bird’s crown are made of soft, bendable fluffy feathers which can be raised high in a perky salute or tucked back smoothly on the head. Nestlings and newly fledged Cardinals often display still growing crests that look more threadbare.
To view photographs of Northern Cardinals engaged in courtship feeding, press this link.
It all progresses pretty fast in the bird world (and ours) … mating, nesting, (2 or 3 times) – and then migration comes around again.
This time of year, the parents are looking haggard and spent…. but they keep at it, even feeding the fledglings who are as big as they are. (Is it possible that these birds are doing double duty….. feeding the begging fledgings while at the same time gathering food for the nestlings?)
Flown the Nest
A fledgling is a young bird who has grown enough to acquire its initial flight feathers and has flown out of the nest. They look babyish and are unsure in flight. Inexperience and immature feathers make them especially awkward when taking off and landing.
There are lots of fledglings of many different species to photograph in our yard. Young birds fledge as soon as 7-11 days after hatching. These curious young birds have not yet learned to feed themselves. They look so new, so vulnerable as they ignore the camera (and potential predators) and follow their parents around begging for food. It takes them a couple weeks before they can fly confidently and acquire food without parental help.
The light is not optimal in my heavily shaded yard, but I will continue photographing the newbies as they struggle to become independent.
I’ve seen courtship feeding among cardinals and other bird species often, but I have never been quick enough to photograph this behavior. Last week, I was finally able to capture this group of images in our wooded yard, near the feeders. It happened so quickly – I was lucky to have the lens focused on the female cardinal when the male flew into range with his offering to her.
Courtship Feeding in Northern Cardinals
This is another one of those times that I can’t help but make comparisons between the behavior of humans and birds. Courtship feeding in northern cardinals appears to be such a tender, selfless act, delicate and sweet. The beak-to-beak offering looks like they are nuzzling, having a moment– something special.
This food sharing ritual between northern cardinals happens mostly after the courtship behaviors are finished and egg laying has commenced. According to researchers, mate feeding is not what we humans perceive it to be. It is not a consequence of loyalty or affection or even strengthening the pair bond. It’s about making sure the female has a steady supply of nutrition during times of reproduction and chick rearing in order to help ensure the production of larger clutches and healthier chicks.
Healthy Females Make for Strong Breeders
The practice of mate feeding is widespread among birds. This behavior probably evolved as a way for the male bird to hedge his reproductive success by making sure his female is strong and healthy enough to mate, lay many eggs, incubate the eggs on the nest, aggressively defend the nest, and feed the chicks. Cardinals have 2-4 broods of chicks each season, so the females do need intense and regular nutrition to stay strong and up to the task of chick rearing.
A great practice for perpetuating the species. Not so much for finding romance.
A lot of days, I concentrate on photographing the birds in my yard. I think the feeder is one of the more boring places on which to point my camera. But on those days that I am stuck inside, that’s where the birds are, at least the ones that I can readily see and reach with my camera.
I am constantly trying to improve my photography skills, and to do that I have to practice. Practice is more productive when I have a purpose in mind; when I deliberately focus on getting better at a particular skill.
This day, I decided to concentrate on depth of field. Depth of field is the “space” in your photograph that’s in focus. More specifically, it’s the distance between the closest point that is in focus and the farthest point that is in focus.
Understanding Depth of Field – Techie Alert
To determine what’s in focus (Depth of Field) and what is not in focus (Blur), the photographer must consider 3 things:
1) Aperture setting,
2) Focal Length of the Lens
3) Distance the Photographer is to Her Subject
Longer lenses (200mm and longer) tend to give a very shallow depth of field (less space in focus). To further complicate matters, the farther away the photographer is to her subject, the more depth of field; or the more space you will have in focus.
Aperture Settings for Background Blur
Luckily, long lenses and long distances between photographer and subject are pretty common scenarios for bird photographers. That being the case, you just have to determine what aperture to use to achieve a good balance of subject in focus and background blur.
The Impact Aperture has on Photographs
A friend of mine asked how I pasted in the beautiful blurred background on my bird photographs.
Argle Bargle! There is no emoticon to express how I felt when I heard that.
Understanding aperture is the cornerstone to achieving creative control of your photos. Aperture is measured in “F Stops”, and is the size of the opening in the lens that the photographer sets before a picture is taken.
Larger apertures produce more background or foreground blur and less space in focus. Smaller apertures produce greater depth of field, or more space in focus. If there are multiple subjects on which to focus and these subjects are not the same distance from the photographer, the depth of field needs to be tightened up so all your subjects are in focus. Given the right light and lens, you can set your aperture so small that everything in the frame will be in focus; nothing would be blurred.
The Quality of Out of Focus Areas
A photography term to describe the quality of background or foreground blur is Bokeh. “(BOKEH = noun, a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image.)” Keep in mind that making a judgement on the bokeh quality of a photograph is highly subjective and hard to quantify. Generally, very pleasing bokeh is a function of the lens. A very high quality lens will most likely produce a very pleasing bokeh.
Achieving Balance in Your Photographs
You want to achieve a nice balance in your photographs. All of the subject(s) in your photo must be in focus and stand out from the background. The blurred background should be pleasing to the eye and not distract the viewer from the subject of the photo.
Making the Ordinary Photograph, Extraordinary
So with better control of my depth of field in mind, what can I do to make the birds on bird feeder photos more interesting? How can I take an ordinary scenario and turn it into an extraordinary photograph?
I asked my husband (Camera Boy) if he would pick some flowers from our yard to decorate our dinner table. He put together a beautiful bouquet for us and then decided to decorate the bird feeder platform with a bouquet as well. I didn’t think much of it, a little color is always nice. But then I noticed the difference it made.
Birds are always looking back at me through the window. Most times, they are just being cautious, gauging when/if they need to make a quick get away. They also have a “look” for me when feeder food is low and needs refilling. And sometimes they are just interested in what we are having for dinner.
In the first photo, this male cardinal flew in and positioned himself to the side of the flower bouquet on the feeder. Then he looked directly at the camera and tilted his head slightly. That’s all it took. The cardinal looks as though he is offering a gift to me. The flower bouquet adds a whole new dimension to the photograph. In the second photo, the cardinal has started to eat, and looks at me over his shoulder. The flower bouquet adds something intangible to this photograph as well.
It’s so easy to identify with bird behavior. In these photos, I sense attitude, intent, and caring. I find this momentary connection between my subjects and myself gratifying on a personal level. And it’s captured forever in the photographs.